Have you ever noticed that some people have a knack for making amazingly difficult feats look easy? Maybe it’s the dancer that seems to merge so completely with the music that it seems to actually come through her. Perhaps it’s the chef that chops and sautés and gently folds ingredients together in such a way that they become an impressive creation of mouth watering art. Maybe it’s the speaker that gets up in front of hundreds or even thousands of people and uses a combination of words and emotion that transcend language and reach right into the hearts of everyone present, leaving each person somehow transformed.
Wouldn’t you love to reach that level of mastery in your own life? I would. I once heard someone say, “Every master was once a disaster.” Over the four plus years that I’ve been learning karate with my kids, I have certainly had my share of embodying the disaster part of that expression. I can also tell you that those who truly pursue mastery — and seem to the rest of us as though they have already arrived — rarely (if ever) use the word “master” to describe themselves.
This week’s video post features a lesson I learned through my experience in the karate dojo that gave me insight into the pursuit of this thing called mastery – that can be applied to everything we do.
Here’s what I said in the video:
[The first part of the above video] was just a small part of a martial arts sequence called Kata. The first time I saw black belts doing that three or four years ago, I thought “there is no way I will ever be able to do anything like that”, but gradually I learned. And I wasn’t able to learn it all at once. I had to start out by learning what a U-block was and how you punch, and how do you do a center knife-hand (which I still need to work on). And then I was taught the sequence — what comes after what.
The first time I did the sequence it did not look like a dance. It did not look like a kata. It looked like a choppy series of techniques that I hadn’t quite mastered yet. I had to think about every single thing I was doing and what came next and whether or not I was doing it right. And I was completely in my head.
Only when I did it enough times, over and over and over again was I able to forget about thinking and trust that my body knew what to do, to lose myself in the drama — and really that’s what the Kata is — a simulated fight against attackers. That is when it really came together for me.
It is so similar to what happens with us whenever we learn something new. We always start off looking a little silly, a little foolish and feeling a little stiff and certainly not smooth or fluid or graceful — and maybe think we’re never going to master it. But over time, the more we practice, the more we build confidence, the more we’re able to trust that we really do know what to do.
Then we’re able to get out of our heads and come from our heart. And that is when our work becomes our art.
For more on mastery:
Dancer photo by Alexander Yakovlev from BigstockPhoto.com.
“Every master was once a disaster.”
I heard someone say that the other day in a yoga class. It gave me comfort. Because I am all too familiar with that awkward, humbling stage that comes with learning something new – when you want to run with the stallions but feel more like a donkey. It’s a universal phenomenon, really. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that “Every artist was once an amateur.”
We can all learn a lot about our paths to proficiency by looking at the ways in which we have mastered things over the course of our lives – whether it be how to drive a car, play our favorite sport, or take up a new hobby. Today, as I was finishing my yoga class, I realized how my experiences on my yoga mat mirror those in my life – and how I can transfer my learnings from one arena to the other. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share a few of my insights.
(1) There is power in persistent practice. Every once in awhile a yoga instructor demonstrates a pose that evokes a “you’ve got to be kidding” response from me. I always give it a try, and usually the first time I do I look a lot like I feel – completely inept. There is one pose that I have recently dreaded and just about every time I’ve gone to yoga for the last few weeks, this instructor builds it into the class. Ugh. Not again. But I muster up my strength and give it a shot every time, and I have to say it gradually has become less and less onerous to me. This morning I was actually able to hold the pose – it was only for a few seconds – but I did it! And I realize the more I practice, the better I will get at that and the easier and more fun it will become.
Isn’t that like life, though? Every day there are things you can sail through and then there will be those areas that require a lot of hard work, practice and patience before you can feel even the least bit effective. But if you keep at it, one day you will surprise yourself with how far you have come. And everything that led up to that point will be worth it.
(2) Learn from and admire others, but don’t compare yourself to them. Sometimes this is a thin line. As a novice, you need to watch people perform so that you can see how things are done. And even as you get pretty good, you can still learn a lot from others’ examples. But the minute you begin to compare yourself, you will lose your focus and dilute your effectiveness. This is true regardless of whether comparing yourself to others makes you feel inferior or superior. Let me explain.
In yoga, when I watch someone do something to get the proper technique and admire their grace, I can pick up a few tips and then concentrate on getting into my zone so I can do what I need to in the way I need to do it. But the minute I look over at the person next to me to see if I’m doing better or worse, I lose my balance and fall down. I have learned that the same thing holds true in my personal and professional life as well.
When we gauge how well we are doing by comparing ourselves to others, the energy and focus that is required to perform effectively becomes scattered. When you believe you are not measuring up, the confidence that is vital to your success gets sapped. And if you do not believe you can do something, you will inevitably prove yourself right. On the other end of the spectrum, when you believe you are outperforming others and become a little too smug, your confidence can turn into arrogance which shifts your focus from what you are doing to how others are perceiving you. And anything that is more focused on appearances than substance lacks foundation and eventually crumbles.
The best of the best gain their confidence from within – as a product of their effort, focus, and the results that come with effort and focus. They don’t need to compare themselves to other to know that they are good – or to know that they can get even better.
(3) Lighten up and have some fun. In yoga, the instructors are quick to remind people that falling over is par for the course and that the important thing is to just keep on trying – and to play at it. The people in those classes who seem so good at yoga that they could be teaching the class themselves are the first to tell you about how many times they fell over or how long it took them to get to where they are. And they will also tell you that they still fall occasionally. Why? Because once you master something in yoga, there is always a way to deepen the pose or increase the level of difficulty. But when you challenge your balance and fall out of it, you learn what you need to do to stay in it longer next time. That’s how mastery happens.
The same thing is true in life. When we get all balled up in knots trying to make things perfect and avoiding every possible misstep, we risk becoming stagnant and playing small. Getting too attached to the results leads us to stiffen up and become consumed with needing things to happen in the exact way we want them to. Without flexibility, we lose our ability to bend and make the necessary course corrections that allow us to ultimately excel. If you ever look at the top performers in any industry, sport, or artistic endeavor you will notice that accompanying their intensity is an ability to relax into their game in such a way that it appears easy and natural. The ability to play at work is another mark of the master.
(4) Replenish yourself regularly. My favorite part of yoga is the last five minutes of each class. They call it Shivasana. It’s where the previous fifty to eighty minutes of stretching, strengthening and balancing give way to lying flat on your back relaxing every muscle of your body. It is in these last few moments of the class, the instructors will tell you, that all the benefits of the practice take root. In these moments, the mind becomes clear, and stress and tension melt away. The end result is a feeling of freshness and revitalized energy that lasts throughout the day.
In our frenetic lives, it is easy to forget about the importance of pausing every once in awhile to make the most of our experiences – whether by giving ourselves a needed break, or simply taking a moment to assess where we are going, to what degree we are still on course, and what, if any, course corrections are necessary. Being willing to invest our precious time into replenishing ourselves in this way pays handsome dividends – and sometimes the times we think we can’t afford to slow down are in fact the times we cannot afford not to.
My new book, The Pinocchio Principle: Becoming the Leader You Were Born to Be is about getting back to the basics of who you really are, what you are here to accomplish, and how you can unearth your greatness in a way that inspires others to do the same. It is now available on Amazon.
Picture by Vvvstep from Dreamstime.com.